AAPS Update: Climate, Bullying, Guidance

Board looks at intersection of key success issues

Ann Arbor Public Schools Board of Education Committee-of-the-Whole meeting (Feb. 15, 2012): At its Feb. 15 committee-of-the-whole meeting, the AAPS school board discussed three related issues — combating bullying, assessing and improving school climate, and restructuring the school guidance and counseling program.

Riot Youth

Members of the LGBTQ student group Riot Youth addressed the Ann Arbor Public Schools board at its meeting of the committee-of-the-whole on Feb. 15. (Photo by the writer.)

Trustee Glenn Nelson noted that these interwoven topics had been a high priority for the board since a 2009 study session at which the board reviewed how AAPS was functioning in these areas compared to best practices in the field of education. “[T]his is not a topic of the evening,” Nelson said. “This was a deliberate and high-priority commitment where we really want to make progress.”

Also at the Feb. 15 committee meeting, the board members discussed an administrative recommendation to implement all-day kindergarten district-wide, which they approved at a special meeting on Feb. 18, 2012. The Chronicle previously reported on that meeting and the committee discussion. 

Anti-Bullying Policy

In December 2011, the Michigan state legislature passed an anti-bullying law requiring each school district to craft a policy specific to bullying, to hold a public hearing on it, and to submit it to the state by June of 2012. At the Feb. 15 committee-of-the-whole meeting, the board heard from the public regarding bullying in the district, and also from members of the LGBTQ student group Riot Youth, who shared their recommendations for the AAPS policy and associated regulations. The board requested that AAPS administration draft a bullying policy for initial review by early May 2012.

Bullying: Public Commentary

Local activist Jim Toy argued that bullying is “soul-murder” and must be addressed as such. He added that bullying is perpetrated throughout society, and said schools are a good place to begin to address this behavior. Toy thanked the board for its concern, for actions it has already taken, and for actions it will take in the future to address bullying in the district.

Three students spoke about their personal experiences of being bullied in AAPS. Hind Omar and Mekaram Aljabal each contended that the district does not do a good job of embracing diversity, and tends to “shove it under the rug” when something inappropriate is said, instead of addressing it openly. Leo Robertson spoke in detail about relentless harassment he has experienced as a result of his former last name (Minus), clothing choices, and sexual orientation.

Robertson contended that students who had assaulted him had not been disciplined, and that the administrators to whom he had reported multiple serious incidences, including verbal and written death threats, had barely helped. Robertson, too, the board that the district had “swept [his harassment] under the rug,” and said that the district’s regulations against bullying are not being enforced. He urged the board to create a “watchdog committee” to be sure reports of bullying are properly addressed.

Robertson’s mother, Kelly Robertson, also addressed the board, saying that her son’s harassment was “the most horrendous thing [she's] ever experienced.” She said that bullying cannot be allowed to continue to destroy the self-esteem of teenagers in the district, and contended that administration had been unaccountable. Robertson accused some AAPS administrators of “turning a blind eye,” and being “good spin doctors.” She noted that her family is currently working with the ACLU to get her son’s physical, mental, and verbal assault properly addressed. “It’s very serious,” Robertson said. “If you don’t have a child who’s been through it, you have no idea.”

Bullying: AAPS Regulations and New State Policy Mandate

AAPS deputy superintendent of human resources and general counsel Dave Comsa explained to the board that a new state law passed in December 2011 requires all schools to adopt a bullying policy. Currently, Comsa pointed out, the district addresses bullying on page 10 of its Student Rights and Responsibilities handbook, but does not have a formal board policy.

Comsa briefly reviewed some provisions the state has required be included in the new policy, including: an affirmative statement prohibiting bullying; prevention of retaliation for those reporting bullying; the identification by job title of those responsible for investigating allegations of bullying; and a procedure for notifying the parents of both the alleged perpetrator and the student allegedly being bullied. Comsa noted that the legislation passed by the state also encourages annual training and education programs for students and parents.

Finally, Comsa noted that there were three template policies the district could consider when beginning to craft its own policy – one from the state, one from the Michigan Association of School Boards, and one from a local private legal firm. Comsa asked the board how they would like to proceed with developing a policy. The board directed Green to have her staff prepare a policy and recommend it to the board for review by mid-April or early May, which she agreed was a reasonable timeline.

Bullying: Riot Youth Recommendations

Nelson introduced Riot Youth, an LGBTQ student group supported by the Neutral Zone teen center, which recently conduced a climate survey in four of the district’s high schools and incorporated the results into a theatrical presentation, which they had performed at the previous board meeting. Riot Youth members attended the Feb. 15 school board committee-of-the-whole meeting to share their recommendations with the board on what to include in the new bullying policy and its associated regulations.

Seven students addressed the board on behalf of Riot Youth: Emma Upham, Avery Bond, Leo Robertson, Carson Borbely, Ashley Burnside, Kylah Thompson, and Indigo Spranger. They passed out a copy of a bullying policy they had crafted based on the template put out by the state, and noted that their proposed policy went a little further in some areas.

Borbely began the presentation by saying that Riot Youth was excited to be partners with the school board in creating a comfortable school climate where all students would feel safe. He contended that creating an effective bullying policy, along with effective means of enforcing it, would support the diversity of the student body.

Spranger offered some specific suggestions to the board. First, she noted that the curricula used in history and in health classes were not inclusive of LGBTQ students. For example, she said, the gay movement happened alongside the civil rights movement, but there is little mention of it. Similarly, in health class, she said, “We have to hear about straight sex all the time, but gay sex is never brought up … It’s just as important for us to learn about protection and safety.”

Not using inclusive examples in class contributes to the isolation often experienced by LGBTQ students, Spranger said. She noted how teachers’ assumptions about gender identity encourage stereotypes, and argued that teachers should be taught how to be allies. Finally she noted that schools having only gender-specific bathrooms and locker rooms was not reflective of the diversity of the student body: “There aren’t just ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ identities. There are so many things in between … That’s just not how everyone is.”

Other Riot Youth members added more details about their proposed policy amendments, including the importance of having clear procedures for addressing bullying once it has happened. The students suggested that the policy should protect students who report harassment, address cyberbullying and other bullying that takes place outside of school, and include provisions for educating people who bully about why it’s wrong so they can develop empathy.

Upham reiterated that it’s critical that the policy include regular training of staff, teachers, counselors, and administration as well as students. She suggested the district should teach alternative ways to resolve the problems that motivate bullying behavior. Finally, she thanked the board for adding “gender identity” and “gender expression” into board policy 2050 on non-discrimination. The board added those terms in 2009.

Board policy 2050 in its entirety now reads:

No person shall be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination in any educational program or activity available in any school on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, creed, political belief, age, national origin, linguistic and language differences, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, socioeconomic status, height, weight, marital or familial status, or disability.

Upham closed the presentation by saying, “Thank you for taking that step. Thank you for the work you’ve done, and for the interest.”

Board members universally praised Riot Youth members for their courage, for the clarity and perspective they brought to the discussion, and for situating their comments in the larger context of celebrating diversity rather than merely preventing bullying. Mexicotte added that the board was “absolutely committed to this work, to making school climate as safe as it can be,” and thanked Riot Youth for their input as the board writes its bullying policy.

Green also commended the board for working with Riot Youth on this issue, and asserted that the board’s strong commitment to addressing school climate and bullying set AAPS apart from other school districts. She noted that those who bully can have underdeveloped social and emotional skills, and said that she is working to bring the social and emotional component of learning — which, she noted, some people call “character education” — into the equation in order to “make [AAPS] a better place for all.”

Bullying: Board Discussion

Trustee Susan Baskett expressed concern about the harassment described by the Robertson family during the public commentary period and asked what the administration could do to ensure that parents’ issues do not get lost in the system. Green responded that all allegations of harassment will be taken very seriously and addressed appropriately. But Baskett persisted. “How does a parent know you have taken action, regardless of what it is?”

Green reviewed the harassment resolution procedures she had followed in her previous district, which included documentation of every incident in triplicate, the need for parents to resolve the issue at the appropriate administrative level, and an anonymous review of all incidences of harassment and their resolution. Over the years, she said, her district was able to track the incidences of harassment going down.

Baskett questioned the chain-of-command approach, asking, “What if the parents think the responsible superintendent is sitting on it?”

Mexicotte suggested the board should consider a provision in the policy that makes explicit the protocol parents should follow in working up the chain. “I have done the math,” she said, “and it would take three and a half weeks [for an issue] to get to the board, but it’s not usually going to get to us.” Stead added that the district should clarify its expectations about prompt communication to all staff. “My expectation is that within 24 hours, we should be able to get back to people, if for nothing else to say, ‘We got your message. We are looking into it.’” Mexicotte agreed, “This is standard business practice.”

Trustee Simone Lightfoot said she liked the idea of coming together to look at reports of bullying incidences, but that she was “less enamored to know about what happened than knowing what was fixed, and what student or staff names keep rising to the top.” Lightfoot said she was interested in establishing an oversight committee to be sure the district was following up properly. Comsa responded that one of the provisions that could be included in the policy would require an investigation of bullying to be completed within three school days.

Thomas questioned how far the school’s domain can reach in terms of enforceable policy, specifically regarding cyber-bullying. Comsa answered that the courts are currently working that out, and trying to balance First Amendment rights with education rights. Green added that if bullying negatively impacts a student’s school experience — regardless of where it took place — the district could take action.

School Climate Update

In 2009 the board directed AAPS administration to assess the school climate districtwide. At the Feb. 15 committee-of-the-whole meeting, top AAPS instructional administrators presented a summary of the survey data collected since then. AAPS deputy superintendent for instruction Alesia Flye noted that there has been significant turnover in AAPS instructional services department since the climate survey process was initiated. That had resulted in inconsistent use of the survey tool and data collection, she said. However, she and her staff have produced as comprehensive of a report as possible, she said, and fully recognize the importance of cultivating positive school climates, as noted in the district’s strategic plan.

School Climate: Public Commentary

Abraham Shamar, father of two AAPS graduates and two current AAPS students, thanked the board and district for working on the issue of positive school climate, including training teachers and administration about cultural, social, and religious diversity. However, he also noted, “Recent experiences with [his] family indicate that there is still a need for more training.” He also volunteered to share his experiences with the administration at their request.

School Climate: Survey Data

Flye, along with AAPS assistant superintendents Dawn Linden (elementary) and Joyce Hunter (secondary), reviewed the school climate survey data, which were collected from students, parents, staff, and teachers. Pioneer and Huron high schools completed their surveys in 2009-10, Skyline High School completed its survey this school year, 2011-12.  Other elementary, middle, and high schools completed surveys during the 2010-11 school year.

Linden reported that 2,334 students, 405 teachers or staff, and 1,513 parents were surveyed at the elementary level. She also noted that not all elementary schools used the same survey tool or assessment method, and that participation levels varied widely from school to school.

She highlighted positive trends (parents feel welcome, students believe teachers have high expectations of them, and teachers use data to monitor student growth), as well as areas for growth (cafeteria and playground staff responsiveness, inclusivity and technology use in curriculum, and students using available resources if they’re struggling).

Hunter noted that the middle and high schools had used the “WE” surveys, which present the same questions to teachers, students, and the staff as a whole in order to compare perceptions. She reviewed details of the secondary level survey results, highlighting trends and growth opportunities in terms of rigor, relevance, relationships, and leadership. She noted that there were some themes that appeared throughout the secondary schools, but others that were unique to each building.

In summary, Hunter outlined the district’s “response plan” for the secondary level school climate data, including: sharing building level data with principals; monitor bullying and provide anti-bullying education; encourage more interdisciplinary instruction; solicit additional student feedback; better aligning curriculum with advanced and college-level expectations; and implement a new guidance curriculum. The guidance curriculum is further discussed below.

Flye noted that the survey tools and survey administration processes used at each level would be standardized, and from now on administered annually at all levels.

School Climate: Board Response

The board thanked the district staff for the survey data, but expressed concern about the inconsistent participation and wide variability in results between schools. Given the wide ranges in the data presented, some trustees expressed an interest in reviewing the school-level data. Administrators responded by saying the building-level data could be sent to board members. Trustees also requested more demographics on the respondents.

Nelson noted that the data do not reveal the proportion of students being bullied — that the data could describe a few awful cases, or pervasive lower-level bullying. Thomas noted that this was an improvement from the last time climate data was presented to the board, but that there is still a lot of data missing. Flye concurred, saying, “We are confident we can clean up a lot of this,” including clarifying some of the questions.

Trustee Irene Patalan encouraged additional professional development based on the survey data – for teachers and support staff. She also suggested that schools should be able to compare data with other schools and collaborate on response plans.

Nelson noted that the WE surveys do have national norms associated with them for individual response items, but that the AAPS review did not include those. Mexicotte went further, questioning whether the WE survey was actually the tool the board had directed administration to use back in 2009. She asked board secretary Amy Osinski to review the board minutes from the 2009 study session at which school climate was discussed. “I’d like you find that [recommended] survey” Mexicotte said. “It is important to us that it be nationally normed and also be given on an ongoing basis. We were so dismayed that the elementaries had developed their own surveys and delivery models.”

Director of student accounting Jane Landefeld said that part of the issue in determining which survey to administer was cost, but Mexicotte countered, “That was the board’s decision. The board was willing to bear the cost.”

The board made a few additional suggestions to the administration regarding future climate surveys. Mexicotte suggested conducting a more robust statistical analysis, including figuring out which data are statistically significant, given various sample sizes at each school. Thomas added that he is concerned about getting a representative sample, and pointed out, “The sample size is not as important as the bias that went into selected those respondents.”

Mexicotte suggested that it will be important to disaggregate ranges, giving the following example: “A range of 39-47% on a certain item could mean that one school is at 39% and the others are all at 47% or the reverse.” She noted that following just ranges over time could mean that change would not become evident, even if significant change occurs. She also suggested focus groups could be done with the pieces of data that are the most important but not well understood.

Baskett expressed disappointment with the school climate report and level of data shown. She suggested that future surveys include more qualitative, open-ended answers in students’ own words. Nelson requested grouping over time. “Over the next six years,” he said, “I hope these [data] improve and I hope the instrument is such that I know whether things got better or worse.”

School Guidance Program

AAPS superintendent Patricia Green explained that the board had significant discussion in 2009 about the district’s guidance and counseling program, and determined that the district needed to take a new direction in organizing and delivering services in this area in order to maximize use of the skills of school guidance counselors. She noted that assistant superintendent Joyce Hunter had taken the lead in the last 18 months to redesign the guidance and counseling program at the secondary level.

Guidance: Program Description

Hunter described a traditional guidance program as one where counselors work independently, and much of counselors’ time is spent on administrative tasks such as student scheduling and standardized test delivery. She explained that the main goal of the redesigned program was to shift from that traditional approach to a comprehensive program in which counselors lead whole schools in delivering a standardized guidance curriculum, while still providing academic counseling and responsive services.

The vision of the new guidance and counseling program will free counselors from a large chunk of administrative, non-counseling activities, Hunter continued, and includes four components: a guidance curriculum (structured lessons delivered to groups of students); individual academic planning; responsive services (support groups, individual student counseling, referrals to outside agencies); and system support (working with families and the community).

She explained that the district had formed a district-wide guidance and counseling advisory committee made up of administrators, counselors, parents, students, and the board. The committee began its work by undertaking a needs assessment of parents, students, and teachers to determine what a comprehensive guidance and counseling program should include. Hunter also noted the committee reviewed models from other states, and is eager to fully implement the new program.

Guidance: Board Response

Trustees had some questions about the guidance curriculum. Hunter clarified that lessons will be delivered to groups of students by counselors, classroom teachers, or other staff or community members. The lessons will include topics such as study skills, tolerance, diversity, and test-taking skills. Logistically, the lessons will be integrated into each school depending on available scheduled time – Forum time at Community, Skytime at Skyline, or the advisory period at the middle schools. Baskett asked how the guidance curriculum would be delivered at Huron and Pioneer high schools, which do not have open time. Hunter told Baskett that said extended class times would be scheduled throughout the year to deliver the curriculum.

Hunter also noted that a brochure explaining the new program to parents would be printed and posted on the district’s website.

Several trustees expressed concern that counselors are still being tied up with significant administrative work, which keeps them from actually working with students. Hunter assured them that the administration is working to free counselors from non-counseling duties so they can be more active in individual student planning. Hunter confirmed that counselors are limited to monitoring 325 students each.

Stead suggested including teachers on the district-wide guidance and counseling advisory committee, as well as considering the hiring of additional support staff if possible in the future.

Patalan invited John Boshoven, a longtime guidance counselor at Community High School, to share any feedback he had on the new program as proposed.

Boshoven thanked the board for its efforts in this area, and for honoring school guidance counselors with a recent proclamation. He too expressed frustration that counselors “spend half their time trying to fix up schedules,” and reported that counselors are “feeling a lot of pressure” to meet students’ needs. Boshoven also noted that it’s not truthful for AAPS to call its model comprehensive when it leaves out kindergarten through 6th grade, and commended Green for having a broader vision.

Green thanked Boshoven for capturing her vision for a comprehensive K-12 pupil services program, saying “it’s way too late” to start guidance counseling in the 8th grade. She noted that AAPS is the first district she’s worked in without an elementary counseling program, and noted that the district needs to deal better with equity issues and social and emotional learning.

Lightfoot asked “What priority are we going to give students who are underachieving?” She suggested that the comprehensive guidance and counseling program be phased in, and that the kids who have the most need receive services first. She also suggested having a list of “ways to get involved” for parents online.

Mexicotte also noted that there are no special education personnel on the district-wide advisory committee, and nothing in the program that explains the role that counselors play in helping special education students develop a personal curriculum in order to graduate. “We still struggle with a bifurcated system,” she said. “We still seem not to have ownership of the special education student.”

Present: President Deb Mexicotte, vice-president Christine Stead, secretary Andy Thomas, treasurer Irene Patalan and trustees Susan Baskett, Simone Lightfoot, and Glenn Nelson.

Next regular meeting: Wednesday, March 7, 2012, at 7 p.m. at the downtown branch of the Ann Arbor District Library, 343 S. Fifth Ave.

One Comment

  1. February 23, 2012 at 4:18 pm | permalink

    Thank you AA Public Schools and parents and students and supporters. This is what the law was always intended to do: create a open discussion about what is needed within the school district, hopefully led by those who matter the most, the students.

    Years of battling legislators who kept saying this was not an issue only made the issue of bullying worse, and as long as schools were not required to do something they did a little here and a little there, to get by. Now we have opened the door for better communication which was my goal years ago that many did not understand and fought against. Schools who have ignore the issue for years are now addressing it, and that is the social change we need.

    I have spoken several times in Ann Arbor and all I can say is keep the lines of communication open and listen from those who know where the problems lie, the students who experience it every day. Craft a policy that will move the district forward and most of all empower the students to make the most significant change. The policy is nothing without action, allow the students to take the leadership role in standing up for each other, and I guarantee you, that they will amaze you.

    Kevin Epling
    Matt’s Dad